Turkey and the Holocaust: Turkey's Role in Rescuing Turkish and European Jewry from Nazi Persecution, 1933-1945


By Stanford J. Shaw,

"While six million Jews were being exterminated by the Nazis, the rescue of some 15,000 Turkish Jews from France, and even of some 100,000 Jews from Eastern Europe might well be considered as relatively insignificant in comparison. It was, however, very significant to the people who were rescued, and above all it showed that, as had been the case for more than five centuries, Turks and Jews continued to help each other in times of great crises."

Turkish diplomats in France spent a good deal of time organizing 'train caravans' to take Turkish Jews back to Turkey. This actually was encouraged by the Vichy government was well as the French authorities in German-occupied France as the only way to make sure that Turkish Jews were not subjected to the anti Jewish laws applied to French Jews, because the Nazi occupation officials themselves were increasingly unhappy about the exemptions and were regularly demanding that they be brought to an end. Thus the French Foreign Ministry wrote to the Turkish Embassy at Vichy on 13 January 1943, after the French finally had accepted the Turkish argument that it was illegal for them to discriminate among Turkish citizens of different religions:

To avoid the application of these measures to Turkish citizens, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs would be disposed to look favorably on the return of the interested parties to their countries of origin.

In the middle of 1943, the Nazi occupying authorities, inspired by Adolph Eichmann, finally issued an ultimatum to Turkey and other neutral countries that they would have to repatriate all their Jewish citizens in France, after which all those who remained would be treated the same as French Jews.

Most of the neutral countries agreed to this right away and evacuated their Jews quickly because they were able to send them home directly without having to send them through third countries. Turkey was unable to do the same because with the Mediterranean closed to shipping, the only way to send Turkish Jews back was by train through Southeastern Europe. The Nazis issued group visas for the Jews being evacuated, but the various countries located along the path of the trains were not at all anxious to help Jews escape extermination. The most notorious of these were Croatia, Serbia and Bulgaria, which caused many difficulties to prevent the trains from passing through their territory on their way to Turkey. Finally, however, the Turkish diplomats were able to organize some four train caravans during 1943 and eight more in 1944, which together transported some 2,000 Jews to Istanbul.


 Other Jews were helped to flee to the areas of southern France under Italian occupation, where they were treated much better until Mussolini fell and Italy was occupied by the Germans in the middle of 1943. They also fled across the Pyranees into Franco's Spain, where they were given refugee despite Spain's alliance with Germany, or across the Mediterranean to North Africa. There they were interned but not persecuted, except in Algeria, where the French colons were even more anti-Semitic than were the Germans. 


In 1944, when the Vichy government was thinking of deporting all 10,000 Turkish Jews living in its territory to the East for extermination, Turkish Foreign Minister Numan Menemencioglu intervened with the French government, on the direct orders of President Ismet Inönü, stating that such an act would be considered unfriendly by Turkey and would cause a major diplomatic incident, including perhaps a complete break in diplomatic relations. This convinced Vichy to abandon the plan and saved these Jews from almost certain death. The original correspondence on this matter has not yet been uncovered. Turkey's key roll in this matter is, however, well documented in other sources. The American Ambassador at Ankara, Laurence Steinhart, himself a Jew, wrote the head of the Jewish Agency office in Istanbul, Chaim (Charles) Barlas on 9 February 1944:

... It has been a great satisfaction to me personally to have been in a position to have intervened with at least some degree of success on behalf of former Turkish citizens in France of Jewish origin. As I explained to you yesterday, while the Vichy government has as yet given no commitment to the Turkish Government, there is every evidence that the intervention of the Turkish authorities has caused the Vichy authorities to at least postpone if altogether abandon their apparent intention to exile these unfortunates to almost certain death by turning them over to the Nazi authorities.

This is confirmed in the memoirs of Steinhart's German counterpart in Ankara, Ambassador Franz von papen, who, of course, emphasized his own role in the affair:

I learned through one of the German émigré professors that the Secretary of the Jewish Agency had asked me to intervene in the matter of the threatened deportation to camps in Poland of 10,000 Jews living in Southern France. Most of them were former Turkish citizens of Levantine origin. I promised my help and discussed the matter with m. Menemencioglu. There was no legal basis to warrant any official action on his part, but he authorized me to inform Hitler that the deportation of these former Turkish citizens would cause a sensation in Turkey and endanger friendly relations between the two countries. This demarche succeeded in quashing the whole affair.

Finally, one of Barlas's associates at the Jewish Agency office in Istanbul, Dr. Chaim Pazner, stated to the Second Yad Vashem International Historical Conference on Rescue Attempts during the Holocaust, held in Jerusalem in April 1974:

In December 1943, Chaim Barlas notified me from Istanbul that he had received a cable from Isaac Wiesman, representative of the World Jewish Congress in Lisbon, that approximately ten thousand Jews who were Turkish citizens, but had been living in France for years and had neglected to register and renew their Turkish citizenship with the Turkish representation in France, were in danger of being deported to the death camps. Weismann requrested that Barlas contact the competent Turkish authorities and attempt to save the above-mentioned Jews. Upon receiving the telegram, Barlas immediately turned to the Turkish Foreign Ministry in Ankara, submitted a detailed memorandum on the subject, and requested urgent action by the Turkish legation in Paris.... We later received word from Istanbul and Paris that, with the exception of several score, these ten thousand Jews were saved from extinction.

In addition to providing material assistance to Turkish Jews persecuted in France and other countries occupied by the Nazis in Western Europe, Turkey also helped East European Jews persecuted in countries such as Greece, Lithuania, Rumania, Hungary, Yugoslavia and Bulgaria. Right from the start of the war, the Turkish government permitted the Jewish Agency to maintain a rescue office at the Pera Palas and other hotels in the Tepebasi section of Istanbul, overlooking the Golden Horn, under the direction of Chaim (Charles) Barlas, as we have seen. Ina ddition, other Jewish organizations based in Palestine were allowed to maintain representative offices in Istanbul. Many were sent by kibbutzim wanting to rescue members from persecution or death in Eastern Europe. First, however, they had to learn what was going on in those countries. Fore this purpose they sent their agents from Istanbul to these countries to gather information. They used the Turkish post office to send letters to Jews in these countries and toreceive responses. They sent packages of clothing and food to help out when needed. In all of these activities, the Turkish Ministry of Finance, despite Turkey's severe financial problems resulting from the war, provided them with the hard currency needed to meet their expenses, and the Turkish diplomats stationed in these countries allowed their facilities to be used when needed.

With this help, the Jewish rescue groups based in Istanbul were able to organize trains and steamships which carried to safety in Turkey and beyond as many refugees that could leave their homes. In this they were vigorously opposed, not only by the Nazis, but also by the British government, which correctly feared that most of the refugees arriving in Turkey would go on in Palestine. Turkey as a matter of fact made this a condition of its agreement to allow these refugees to enter its territory. It would not support large number of immigrants of this sort since people in Turkey were already starving as a result of wartime shortages and blockades in the Mediterranean. It did allow the Jewish Agency and other organizations to bring these refugees through Turkey on their way to Palestine, however, permitting the Mossad organization to send them in small boats across the Mediterranean from southern Turkey. When the British were successful in preventing some of these refugees from going to Palestine, instead interring them on Cyprus, the Turkish government allowed them to remain in Turkey far beyond the limits of their transit visas, in many cases right until the end of the war.

The Vatican's reluctance to help the persecuted Jews of Europe is well documented. This was not the case, however, with the Papal Nuncio in Istanbul from 1935 until 1944, Archbishop Angelo Roncalli, who later became Pope John XXIII. Roncalli was a very unusual person. When he first came to Turkey even before the war, he taught his parishioners, including many Greeks and Armenians, that they should forget their prejudices against Turks and Muslims, that they should follow the precepts of Christian charity and love in dealing with them, that they should forget the bigotries of the past and work together with their fellow Turkish citizens to build a new and modern Republic. Roncalli learned Turkish himself and recited the Christmas mass in Turkish at least one in Istanbul. This greatly pleased the Turkish people, who had become increasingly disgusted with the insistence of Christians in Turkey to continue using Greek, Italian, French or Armenian in preference to Turkish, unlike the Jews who had emphasized the ue of Turkish instead of French and Ladino since the mid 1930's. During the war Roncalli went much further. He got the Sisters of Sion order of nuns to use their own communications network in Eastern Europe to help the Jewish Agency pass communications, clothing and food to Jews in Hungary in particular. Other Vatican couriers going from Istanbul to Eastern Europe did the same thing as the result of Roncalli's orders. He even got them to carry false Certificates of Conversion to Hungarian Jews to help save them from the Nazis. A remarkable person indeed, early in the year 2000 was recognized as a Saint by the Catholic Church.

Turkey also acted to help the Jews of Greece during the Holocaust. Just as was the case in the areas of southern France occupied by Italy, so also in Greece, during the time it was under Italian occupation early in the war, Greek Jews did reasonably well, despite pressure from Greeks themselves, whose long tradition of anti-Semitism led them to hope that the foreign occupation would at least enable them to get rid of their Jewish fellow-citizens. Even after German troops entered Greece to help the Italians against Greek guerilla resistance. The Italian troops protected Greek Jews from persecution at the hands of the Germans and the Greeks. Once Italy fell out of the war in 1943 and the Germans took over, however, the situation of Jews in Greece became worse than anywhere else in Europe, since while many Frenchmen and Dutchmen, and egven Germans had helped the Jews to escape the Nazi persecution, most Greeks did none of this due to their long history of pervasive anti-Semitism. The only Greeks who helped Jewswere the partisans fighting against the Nazis, who did help Jewish groups spiriting Jews out of Greece, either across the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean to Turkey or Palestine, or by land across the Maritza river into Turkey. Most Greek jews were in fact exterminated by the Nazis. Jewish synagogues and schools were systematically destroyed. Even the great Jewish cemetery at Salonica was wiped out. After the war, instead of restoring it, Greece built the new Aristotle University of Salonica on the cemetery lands.. The Turkish consuls in Greece, at Athens, Salonica and Gümülcine as well as on the islands of Midilli and Rhodes provided the same sort of assistance that the Turkish consuls did in France, also organizing boats to carry Jews to safety in Turkey and intervening with the Germans to exempt Turkish Jews from persecution and extermination. The most outstanding example of this came with the activities of Consul Selahattin Ülkümen in Rhodes, who got the Nazis to spare the Turkish Jews on the island, and who as a result was subsequently imprisoned by the Nazis after his consulate was bombed and his pregnant wife killed by the Germans. The Turkish guards on the Greek-Turkish border allowed Jews coming from Greece as well as Bulgaria to enter turkey even though most of them had no papers at all. Camps were set up for them near Edirne, and ultimately they were allowed to pass on to Istanbul, and, for most of them, to join the other refugees doing by small boats from the Mediterranean coast of southern Turkey to Palestine. Turkey thus provided major assistance to Jews being persecuted by the Nazis, despite pressure from the British, who wanted to stop Jewish immigration to Palestine, and by the Nazis, who demanded not only that this rescue work be stopped, but also that all Turkish Jews, as well as the refugees, be sent to Germany for extermination. Turkey steadfastly refused these demands and continued to assist European Jewry to escape from the Holocaust and in most cases go to Palestine. . Only after it was assured of an Allied victory, and the impossibility of a German invasion, by late 1943, was it ready to enter the war. Even then, however, it reacted to appeals for delay from the Jewish Agency, which understood that immediate Turkish entry would cut off the escape routes through Turkey which were enabling thousand of Jews to escape the Nazis throughout Europe, postponing its entry for almost a year. While six million Jews were being exterminated by the Nazis, the rescue of some 15,000 Turkish Jews from France, and even of some 100,000 Jews from Eastern Europe might well be considered as relatively insignificant in comparison. It was, however, very significant to the people who were rescued, and above all it showed that, as had been the case for more than five centuries, Turks and Jews continued to help each other in times of great crises.

Stanford J. Shaw is Professor Emeritus of Turkish History, University of California Los Angeles Professor of Turkish History, Bilkent University, Ankara, Turkey

Bibliography :

Stanford J. Shaw, Turkey and the Holocaust: Turkey's Role in Rescuing Turkish and European Jewry from Nazi Persecution, 1933-1945.

Stanford J. Shaw, The Jews of the Ottoman Empire and the Turkish Republic. Both books were published both by the New York University Press and by MacMillian publishers in England (now called Palgrave Publishers).

Unfortunately the American editions, which were in paperback, are out of print, but I understand that the British editions (only in hardcover) are still available.


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